What Are Reef-Safe Sunscreens, and Why Are They Important?

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Consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, and they are demanding the same from manufacturers of the personal care products they purchase. 

Unfortunately, many of the common ingredients found in the body-care products we all use every day are now known to have a serious negative impact on the environment. Public knowledge of this issue is increasing, and demands for planet-friendly alternatives are at an all-time high. 

How Does Sunscreen Harm Coral Reefs?

Coral reefs are a vital part of our planet’s underwater ecosystem. They house thousands of aquatic species, help protect coastal areas, and are depended upon by more than 500 million people worldwide, according to experts at London’s Natural History Museum

We all know that wearing sunscreen to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful UV rays is essential. Too much exposure to UV from the sun is one of the leading causes of skin cancer. However, two common ingredients in sunscreen formulations—oxybenzone and octinoxate—have been proven to bleach and kill coral reefs. These ingredients are also thought to be harmful to aquatic plants, fish, and other marine life. 

Lawmakers in Hawaii banned sunscreen products containing these ingredients in 2018. As their dangers become more widely understood, other jurisdictions may follow suit. It is essential, therefore, for manufacturers and consumers to be aware of the environmental costs of their products and the available alternatives. 

What Is a Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

On the surface, the topic of reef-safe sunscreen looks fairly simple: It refers to sunscreen that does not harm coral reefs. However, when we look more closely, it becomes apparent that this is actually a fairly complicated and nuanced subject. 

To begin with, there is no legal definition of what constitutes “reef-safe.” Therefore, both brands and environmental interest groups have come up with their own definitions and certification systems, which do not necessarily agree with one another.

The most broadly accepted criteria for reef-safe sunscreens involve the use of mineral UV filters, specifically non-nano zinc oxide, over chemical or organic UV filters (particularly octinoxate and oxybenzone). However, complicating matters is that the reef safety status of zinc oxide (both nano and non-nano grades) is unclear due to the comparative lack of comprehensive scientific data. Since most coral reef safety studies have been centered on chemical UV filters, there is much more data on their hazard profile.  

At Applechem, we believe it is important to have a balanced view on this subject that maintains fidelity to well-constructed scientific studies. A balanced view involves not just analyzing the hazard profile for a given ingredient but also weighing that against risk exposure models, taking into account more real-world environmental conditions. For example, a few controlled studies have demonstrated the potential danger of nano zinc oxide in coral reef environments, but these studies also involve static systems and exposure rates that are orders of magnitude higher than typical real-life scenarios. In other words, these studies help build out a hazard profile within a controlled environment, but they do not answer the big picture questions on whether these hazards can be feasibly applied to a dynamic coral reef habitat (otherwise known as an ecological risk assessment, or an ERA). The National Academies of Science recently released a two-year study on this subject concluding that the available evidence was insufficient to declare sunscreen ingredients dangerous in a marine environment. It also called upon the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct more comprehensive ERAs for these materials. Much more research is needed before we can determine if the“reef-safe ingredients” claim can be considered scientifically validated.

What we do know is that, based on the most current data, octinoxate and oxybenzone have been shown to be seriously harmful to coral reefs. Therefore, at its most basic level, a sunscreen might be said to be “reef-safe” if it does not contain either of these two ingredients. However, when it comes to understanding the potential comparative impact of the alternatives on the market, the research is simply not yet there to draw absolute conclusions. 

Is There a Difference Between “Reef-Safe” and “Reef-Friendly” Sunscreens?

Not really. As we have established, “reef-safe” is a marketing term that does not indicate much about the product except that it is unlikely to contain octinoxate or oxybenzone. Confusingly, neither of these terms is officially regulated, and their appearance on the packaging does not necessarily mean a sunscreen product is not harmful to marine life. 

Many brands claim that their products are “reef friendly” because they do not contain octinoxate or oxybenzone. However, these products often contain other ingredients (including avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene) that evidence has shown may also present a threat to coral reefs and other marine life.   

At least in theory, “reef-safe” is a more compelling designation than “reef-friendly.” According to environmentally conscious sunscreen brand AMAVARA, “reef-safe can ONLY be achieved if non-nano zinc oxide is the ONLY active ingredient.” As we have mentioned, however, there is no conclusive proof that non-nano zinc oxide is definitively reef-safe. Again, we would emphasize that most available data comes from a hazard classification perspective, and a lot more work must be done in risk assessments before we can draw definitive conclusions. While we understand there will always be a fine line between marketing claims and scientific consensus, we want consumers to be more informed when deciding if a product is reef-friendly or reef-safe based on its packaging claims.

What Can We Do? 

Scientists generally agree that at present, the precise impact of sunscreen on the ocean, coral reefs, and marine life is a gray area and more research is required. What we do know is that it is vital to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays, and equally vital to take all possible steps to protect the health and future of our planet.

Even though the science is currently not entirely conclusive, we must not ignore the problem. We cannot say for sure which sunscreen ingredients are “reef-safe,” but the evidence appears fairly conclusive around octinoxate and oxybenzone. Therefore, we recommend that consumers always seek out products without these ingredients and that manufacturers do not use them in their formulations. 

Save The Reef and the Positive Reef Initiative offer a list of other ingredients to look out for that may be harmful to coral reefs and other marine life. We also advise concerned consumers and manufacturers to keep up to date with the latest research and adjust their purchasing habits accordingly.    

Environmentally Friendly Cosmetics Ingredients

Here at Applechem, we believe in taking care of our planet. That’s why we strive to provide environmentally friendly alternatives to ingredients that are known to have a harmful impact. We also strive to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information, allowing our clients and their consumers to make an informed choice. 

If you would like to learn more about environmentally friendly sunscreen ingredients or any of the other products in our catalog, or if you would like any samples to try, please contact us and a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team will be pleased to assist you.

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